A pronoun stands in the place of a noun. Like nouns, pronouns can serve as the subject or object of a sentence: they are the things sentences are about. Pronouns include words like he, she, and I, but they also include words like this, that, which, who, anybody, and everyone. Before we get into the different types of pronouns, let’s look at how they work in sentences.
Because a pronoun is replacing a noun, its meaning is dependent on the noun that it is replacing. This noun is called the antecedent. Let’s look at the first sentence of this paragraph again:
Because a pronoun is replacing a noun, its meaning is dependent on the noun that it is replacing.
There are two pronouns here: its and it. Its and it both have the same antecedent: “a pronoun.” Whenever you use a pronoun, you must also include its antecedent. Without the antecedent, your readers (or listeners) won’t be able to figure out what the pronoun is referring to. Let’s look at a couple of examples:
- Jason likes it when people look to him for leadership.
- Trini does her hair and make up every day—with no exceptions.
So, what are the antecedents and pronouns in these sentences?
- Jason is the antecedent for the pronoun him.
- Trini is the antecedent for the pronoun her.
So far, we’ve only looked at personal pronouns, but there are a lot of other types, including demonstrative, and indefinite pronouns. Let’s discuss each of these types in further depth:
The following sentences give examples of personal pronouns used with antecedents:
- That man looks as if he needs a new coat. (the noun phrase that man is the antecedent of he)
- Kat arrived yesterday. I met her at the station. (Kat is the antecedent of her)
- When they saw us, the lions began roaring (the lions is the antecedent of they)
- Adam and I were hoping no one would find us. (Adam and I is the antecedent of us)
Reflexive pronouns are a kind of pronoun that are used when the subject and the object of the sentence are the same.
- Jason hurt himself. (Jason is the antecedent of himself)
- We were teasing each other. (we is the antecedent of each other)
This is true even if the subject is only implied, as in the sentence “Don’t hurt yourself.” You is the unstated subject of this sentence.
Reflexive pronouns include myself, ourselves, yourself, yourselves himself, herself, itself, themselves. They can only be used as the object of a sentence—not as the subject. You can say “I jinxed myself,” but you can’t say “Myself jinxed me.”
Pronouns may be classified by three categories: person, number, and case.
Person refers to the relationship that an author has with the text that he or she writes, and with the reader of that text. English has three persons (first, second, and third):
- First-person is the speaker or writer him- or herself. The first person is personal (I, we, etc.)
- Second-person is the person who is being directly addressed. The speaker or author is saying this is about you, the listener or reader.
- Third-person is the most common person used in academic writing. The author is saying this is about other people. In the third person singular there are distinct pronoun forms for male, female, and neutral gender.
There are two numbers: singular and plural. As we learned in nouns, singular words refer to only one a thing while plural words refer to more than one of a thing (I stood alone while they walked together).
English personal pronouns have two cases: subject and object. Subject-case pronouns are used when the pronoun is doing the action (I like to eat chips, but she does not). Object-case pronouns are used when something is being done to the pronoun (John likes me but not her).
Possessive pronouns are used to indicate possession (in a broad sense). Some must be accompanied by a noun: e.g., my or your, as in “I lost my wallet.” This category of pronouns behaves similarly to adjectives. Others occur as independent phrases: e.g., mine or yours. For example, “Those clothes are mine.”
The table below includes all of the personal pronouns in the English language. They are organized by person, number, and case:
Demonstrative pronouns substitute for things being pointed out. They include this, that, these, and those. This and that are singular; these and those are plural.
The difference between this and that and between these and those is a little more subtle. This and these refer to something that is “close” to the speaker, whether this closeness is physical, emotional, or temporal. That and those are the opposite: they refer to something that is “far.”
- Do I actually have to read all of this?
- The speaker is indicating a text that is close to her, by using “this.”
- That is not coming anywhere near me.
- The speaker is distancing himself from the object in question, which he doesn’t want to get any closer. The far pronoun helps indicate that.
- You’re telling me you sewed all of these?
- The speaker and her audience are likely looking directly at the clothes in question, so the close pronoun is appropriate.
- Those are all gross.
- The speaker wants to remain away from the gross items in question, by using the far “those.”
Note: these pronouns are often combined with a noun. When this happens, they act as a kind of adjective instead of as a pronoun.
- Do I actually have to read all of this contract?
- That thing is not coming anywhere near me.
- You’re telling me you sewed all of these dresses?
- Those recipes are all gross.
The antecedents of demonstrative pronouns (and sometimes the pronoun it) can be more complex than those of personal pronouns:
- Animal Planet’s puppy cam has been taken down for maintenance. I never wanted this to happen.
- I love Animal Planet’s panda cam. I watched a panda eat bamboo for half an hour. It was amazing.
In the first example, the antecedent for this is the concept of the puppy cam being taken down. In the second example, the antecedent for it in this sentence is the experience of watching the panda. That antecedent isn’t explicitly stated in the sentence, but comes through in the intention and meaning of the speaker.
Indefinite pronouns, the largest group of pronouns, refer to one or more unspecified persons or things, for example: Anyone can do that.
These pronouns can be used in a couple of different ways:
- They can refer to members of a group separately rather than collectively. (To each his or her own.)
- They can indicate the non-existence of people or things. (Nobody thinks that.)
- They can refer to a person, but are not specific as to first, second or third person in the way that the personal pronouns are. (One does not clean one’s own windows.)
Please note that all of these pronouns are singular. The table below shows the most common indefinite pronouns:
Note: Sometimes third-person personal pronouns are sometimes used without antecedents—this applies to special uses such as dummy pronouns and generic they, as well as cases where the referent is implied by the context.
- You know what they say.
- It’s a nice day today.
As we’ve just seen, indefinite pronouns demand singular pronouns, like in “To each his or her own.” However, in informal speech, you’ll often hear things like “To each their own” or “Someone is singing in the hallway. If they haven’t stopped in five minutes, I’m going to have to take drastic measures.” If you think about your own speech, it’s very likely that you use they as a singular pronoun for someone whose gender you don’t know.
So why do people use they this way, even though it’s a plural? It likely stems from the clunkiness of the phrase “he or she.” It is also possible that they is following the same evolution as the word you. In Early Modern English, you was used as either a plural, second-person pronoun or as a polite form for the more common, singular thee. However, you eventually overtook almost all of the second-person pronouns, both singular and plural.
While this use of the singular they is still not “officially” correct—and you definitely shouldn’t use this in your English papers—it’s interesting to watch English change before our very eyes.
There are five relative pronouns in English: who, whom, whose, that, and which. These pronouns are used to connect different clauses together. For example:
- Belen, who had starred in six plays before she turned seventeen, knew that she wanted to act on Broadway someday.
- My daughter wants to adopt the dog that doesn’t have a tail.
These pronouns behave differently from the other categories we’ve seen. However, they are pronouns, and it’s important to learn how they work. Two of the biggest confusions with these pronouns are that vs. which and who vs. whom. The two following videos help with these: